How Dark Souls III designs around our expectations
Expectations are everything to Dark Souls. The fear of what lurks behind the next corner, counterbalanced by the power of knowledge that comes with repeated trips around it, is the engine that drives the series. Though it didn't always feel that way. Not to me, anyway.
All that matters to me about the original Dark Souls — that is the second game in a loose sequence I take to include Demon's Souls and Bloodborne — was the interconnectivity. I was dazzled by the way Lordran tied back in on itself like a pit of snakes. Several dozen hours into the game I was still stumbling through dank oubliettes that somehow opened back to the relative sunshine and safety of Firelink Shrine.
Dark Souls III isn't like Dark Souls. Nor is it like Dark Souls II, Bloodborne, or anything in between. Where previous games put the size and shape of the world over combat Dark Souls III lays the parry, parry, thrust of the series' encounters bare over a taut string of corridors and medieval Thunderdomes. The departure surprised, and at first irked, me. Though it wasn't long before I realized that this wasn't just the right choice for the game, but the only choice for the series. Because Dark Souls is all about expectations — not meeting them, but using them against you.
Strangely, this brings Dark Souls III closer to the Dark Souls I actually played back in 2011. Not the one colored by experience and memory; the one that shocked, surprised, and confused the hell out of me with every corner, boss, and demonic trapdoor spider that tried to lay hands on me.
Dark Souls' progenitor, Demon's Souls, came out at a time when there was still just barely a whiff of mystery around Japanese imports — that Dreamcast smell that's since been Febreeze'd out by smarter small publishers, Steam, and the internet in general. The game was a success, but flew under enough radars for its follow-up to still surprise me.
Not so much with Dark Souls II. By that point my vision of the series was pretty well cemented. As were a lot of people's at the time, I think. But ours weren't the only expectations working against that first, numbered sequel. It's tough to enter Drangleic (the territory of Dark Souls II) and not get the impression developer From Software was trying to give fans more of what they wanted. Or at least what they could easily articulate.
Running down a giant wolf in a Darkroot Garden clearing, sluicing the Gaping Dragon's innards down the drain it crawled up from, and dodging blows from actual giants: these are much easier to replicate than senses of wanderlust and accompanying homesickness for fictional locations. And oh, did Dark Souls II ever replicate the hell out of these boss experiences. It made the attempt, anyway, with no fewer than 32 bosses across the main game and its various DLC.
Dark Souls III doesn't make that attempt. Not just in its boss encounters, but in how fewer, stronger mundane foes match you blow for blow. Courtly chevaliers block, parry sidestep, and cheese me with spells in as close an approximation to real player tactics as From could likely manage. As do their six dozen friends standing behind them and before you and the bosses. Bosses which, more often than not, are of equal size and just as spritely-- only they can light you on fire or summon a rain of magical arrows. The more linear levels make for combat that feels like the best kind of martial arts movie. Or my favorite kind, anyway. The ones where the hero must ascend from chamber to chamber, taking on increasingly difficult and colorful foes, until the game of death reveals its final stage. That's when the boss rears its typically ugly head. Not before, and certainly not after 45 minutes of lurching off cliffs and into hidden death traps.
Don't get me wrong. After 100-plus hours in Dark Souls the First I'm ready and willing to fight the tangled environment just as much as black knights and dragons. Only that wouldn't in keeping with the spirit of the series. I came into Dark Souls II, III, and to a lesser extent Bloodborne not just expecting the same bag of tricks the original heaved behind it, but wanting it, too. Craving it, really.
Playing Dark Souls III finally completed a circle which taught me something the series has been straight with me about since the beginning. That this isn't just about getting better, but adjusting how I think.
"Prepare to die," its PC re-release said. "Prepare to Die," the Dark Souls II marketing campaign said more frequently. At first I took these as yet more examples of From Software playing into its own reputation: the idea that Dark Souls is for Truly Serious and Hardcore Gamers Only Please. Maybe that's true, but there's something else behind the adage. To accept that dying isn't just an inevitability in these games, but the central conceit.
You live, you die, you do it again. Where other RPGs use experience points to bolster your abilities Dark Souls uses actual experience. Sometimes that skeleton around the corner kicks you off a cliff, but next time you do the kicking. Resurrecting that old, familiar nest of shortcuts and booby traps would cut out the part where I don't know what to expect. On the macro scale, if not moment-to-moment. Past players have already prepared to die one way, you see, and now From has concocted a whole new curriculum.
The result of getting a whole lot more of something I lusted after for Dark Souls II felt, at the time, watered down. Those 32 bosses simply didn't live up to the mythical status — earned or otherwise gifted — I'd attached to the cast of creatures which came prior.
Though by playing through Dark Souls III, and seeing the heavy contrast it bears against its sister sequel, I can now appreciate how that middle child accomplished the very same subversion. Its took the first game's stellar balance and flattened it — spread it thin and wide. Dark Souls III pulls the same trick, only in reverse. This time that first game is pulled in tight and dense. There's not a moment to rest and spend puzzling out puzzles. It's just duel after duel from here till the melancholy end.
Neither game is like the original, but both are shaped from the same mass. It's a unique way to build a franchise. Especially in video games, where comfort is king. Dark Souls II and III lean on familiar mechanics and light gameplay tweaks in much the same way the sixth, seventh, and eighth Calls of Duty might, but ensure that using them in the same way can't work from game to game.
The result had me feeling uneasy. Uneasy about whether I'd have the chops and reflexes to dance between a thousand enemies — and one actual dancer — nearly as strong as me. Even seven years after Demon's Souls should have, yes, prepared me to die.
It's a very different kind of tension than you get from probing around in the dark until you trip over a bonfire or secret shortcut. Though since that can only stay surprising for so long, this new kind of fear was exactly what I needed.
And so my opinion of Dark Souls III was a lot like the games themselves. At times it took me to dark and seemingly inescapable deaths. Only then to drag me back into comforting, but unfamiliar surfaces. Each time my understanding of the series dipped and soared again the horizon looked very different. Until after slaying the final boss I was left in silence, wondering what it all meant.
Except this time I knew what it all meant. To me, anyway.